No Turning Back: Senior Living Finally Enters Digital Age as a Result of Covid-19

The Covid-19 pandemic has exposed how much the senior care industry lags in embracing technology for workforces and residents, and now providers are sprinting to implement solutions.

As a result, technology providers are clocking huge surges in demand, with telehealth solutions and resident engagement/communication tools among the most sought-after products. This marks a jaw-dropping development for some tech companies, which for years have made incremental progress and now find themselves flooded with inquiries and requests.

“There will be more advancement in telehealth between mid-March and mid-April than there has been in the last three years and it was already advancing dramatically,” Ziegler Managing Director, Healthcare Investment Banking Grant Chamberlain said during a March 25 webinar. Through its Link-Age fund, Ziegler has a window into the technology landscape.

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Indeed, across the industry, there is currently an increased need for telehealth technology solutions which can mitigate the spread of Covid-19, CDW Healthcare Strategic Business Development Manager Ginna Baik told SHN. CDW is a Fortune 500 company that delivers tech solutions to more than 250,000 customers across multiple verticals, including senior living.

I don’t ever see us getting caught [unprepared] like this again.

VitalTech CEO James Hamilton

Meanwhile, providers that have already made significant investments in technology in recent years are pushing the envelope now. Maplewood Senior Living, for example, has deployed robots to interact with residents in this time of social distancing.

As Dr. Bill Thomas recently told Senior Housing News, the pandemic, as terrible as it is, is pulling senior living into the digital era in ways never seen before.

Telehealth, virtual care explosion

VitalTech, a Dallas-based virtual health platform, will see its projected 2020 demand compressed into a one-month period, CEO James Hamilton told Senior Housing News.

The company is offering senior living and long-term care facilities free 90-day access to its VitalCare telehealth platform, in a partnership with Ziegler Link-Age Funds, as a way to respond to the pandemic.

VitalCare uses Bluetooth low energy (BLE) devices to measure vital signs, which are collected and stored in the cloud. As more information is gathered, the platform allows caregivers to better monitor residents’ conditions and take action quickly in the event of sharp changes to vital signs and medical emergencies. It also gives residents greater agency in their own care, promoting wellness through better nutrition, exercise and reminders for medication management.

Now that separation and isolation [is essential to fighting Covid-19], the need to connect residents with their families went from ‘nice to have’ to ‘an absolute must-have.’ It’s a sad consequence, but there is no other way [to communicate].

ConnectedLiving CEO and co-founder Sarah Hoit

“[VitalCare] allows [residents] to manage chronic conditions better, keeping them out of emergency rooms and able to warn [caregivers] of declines that may result in an acute event,” Hamilton said.

Scottsdale, Arizona-based telehealth platform MeMD has seen three to three-and-a-half times its normal call volume and a 115% increase in website traffic in the past month, Vice President of Marketing Elie Goodman told SHN.

Among MeMD’s clients is Winter Park, Florida-based independent living giant Holiday Retirement. MeMD is available across the Holiday portfolio, according to a recent Covid-19 update posted by the operator’s real estate investment trust partner New Senior (NYSE: SNR).

In response to the spike in interest, MeMD established a Covid-19 landing page and is analyzing other landing pages and where traffic is coming from, to better target potential new clients

MeMD specializes in “virtual urgent care,” allowing users to identify and treat standard illnesses such as flu and sinusitis. Covid-19 fits perfectly with the platform’s care model, Chief Medical Officer Dr. Nick Lorenzo told SHN.

“We have 24-7 coverage across the country. Even with the increase in [web and call center] traffic, our network of care coordinators are still able to see patients in a timely fashion, with wait times one-third lower than other major platforms,” he said.

Some forward-thinking operators incorporated telehealth into their technology initiatives prior to the pandemic. Maplewood Senior Living works with multiple telehealth platforms which are provided through clinical groups and insurance providers, and established a tech-savvy integrated health team led by nurse practitioners and licensed social workers, to reduce the burden of residents having to leave their properties, COO Shane Herlet told SHN. The Westport, Connecticut-based operator manages 16 communities in Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York and Ohio.

“We’ve been sprinting toward telehealth,” he said.

Thrive Senior Living is also looking at integrating telehealth into its communities during and after the pandemic, Director of Experience and Education Scott Smith told SHN. Atlanta-based Thrive operates 13 communities in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Maryland, New Jersey, Texas and Virginia.

Thrive is looking to use telehealth to limit the risk of exposing residents and staff to coronavirus and other contagions, and free up team members to spend more quality time with residents. Smith acknowledged that telehealth can be difficult to implement in communities during shelter-in-place edicts, but Thrive expects to expedite the process in its communities as soon as the orders are relaxed in its markets.

“We see [telehealth] as something that goes way beyond Covid-19,” he said.

But even if providers are not able to roll out enterprise-level telehealth in the midst of Covid-19 lockdowns, they have other options available. For example, video conferencing could make it easier for caregivers to consult with patients, CDW’s Baik told SHN.

Meanwhile, incorporating predictive analytics into telehealth platforms to measure entire communities may lead to a sea change in care.

“There are so many opportunities for telehealth [in senior living],” she said.

Better communication platforms

Resident isolation is one of the major drawbacks to locking down senior housing during any contagion response plan. An incurable contagion such as Covid-19 may keep communities locked down for weeks or even months.

The pandemic has spurred an increased interest in video platforms to keep residents connected with staff, their families and each other, ConnectedLiving CEO and co-founder Sarah Hoit told SHN.

Based in Quincy, Massachusetts, ConnectedLiving provides a full suite of technology solutions to keep residents informed and engaged with care providers and their families. The service uses a community’s digital signage, a mobile app for iOS and Android platforms, smart home and voice technology, in-room TV content, wearables and even printed calendars and newsletters to keep residents, staff, prospects and families informed of community happenings and news.

ConnectedLiving has seen a substantial uptick in interest in its services as the pandemic sweeps across the country, which is not lost on Hoit

“Now that separation and isolation [is essential to fighting Covid-19], the need to connect residents with their families went from ‘nice to have’ to ‘an absolute must-have.’ It’s a sad consequence, but there is no other way [to communicate],” she said.

Maplewood has ConnectedLiving integrated in all of its communities to connect residents, Herlet told SHN. The operator is also distributing more iPads across its portfolio to help residents stay in touch with the outside world. iPads are also being used for virtual visits, virtual cocktail parties and birthday parties. Maplewood is also using Alexa-enabled devices for communications between residents and staff.

“They’re extremely user-friendly, practical and stable,” Herlet said.

Thrive prepared for locking down its communities by creating spreadsheets listing any internet of things (IoT) devices residents had in their apartments, and is testing the devices twice daily to ensure they are fully charged and operational, Smith said.

Prior to the pandemic, Thrive was piloting a smart suite of technologies at Tribute at Black Hill, its community in Germantown, Maryland. The suite included Alexa-enabled Echo dots in resident bathrooms, smart lights and TVs, and Echo Shows to allow for video chats between residents and families.

We’ve been sprinting toward telehealth.

Maplewood Senior Living COO Shane Herlet

To ease the sense of isolation, both Thrive and Maplewood partnered with online content producers for free online courses and activities. Maplewood is also using virtual and augmented reality technologies to keep residents engaged, and deployed Temi robots across its communities which can learn available access points during lockdowns and engage with residents by playing music, as well as socialize with residents.

A need for improved infrastructure

Lockdown measures are not the only impediment that senior living providers face in raising their tech game during the pandemic. Many senior housing buildings are around two decades old and not equipped with the infrastructure to support robust technology platforms.

The push for more tech has providers seeking infrastructure solutions now, and they are already considering more comprehensive ways to outfit their buildings with enough internet and WiFi capabilities after the pandemic eases, Baik told SHN.

“[Providers will] need WiFi bandwidth to accommodate [bigger loads] or find devices with some sort of connectivity,” she said.

Maplewood prepared for increased usage prior to the pandemic by upgrading its internet and WiFi capabilities to Fiber connectivity across its portfolio in the last 18 months because the depth and scope of its technology initiatives demanded better speeds and support, Herlet said.

The operator is also working with residents and their families on ways to integrate non-native devices such as wearables and cameras into its own tech ecosystem. At Inspir Carnegie Hill, Maplewood’s new building in Manhattan, there is a dedicated customer service representative specifically for that purpose.

“This also gives us an opportunity to test this stuff [for use in other communities], as well,” he said.

The increased demand for tech stemming from Covid-19 will not abate as the pandemic is brought under control, and operators across the industry will need to adjust with the changes. It has also shown why operators need to take a more serious look at tech platforms for better health care, communications and staff management.

“I don’t ever see us getting caught [unprepared] like this again,” Hamilton said.

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